In response for calls to do more to stamp out modern slavery in supply chains, a public inquiry is underway to investigate whether Australia should adopt an act comparable to the United Kingdom’s Modern Slavery Act 2015.
The inquiry, organised by the Australian Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, will examine the extent of modern slavery in Australia and globally.
While Australia already has many laws targeting human trafficking and slavery crimes, an Act similar to that of the UK would encourage businesses to consider and address the risk associated with their global supply chains.
The UK Modern Slavery Act 2015 requires businesses with a global turnover of more than £36m ($A60 million) and carrying on business in any part of the UK to publish a slavery and human traffic statement each financial year.
The statements need to identify what, if any, steps they have taken to ensure there is no modern slavery in their own business or supply chains.
West Australian of the Year and mining magnate Andrew Forrest, who set up the Walk Free Foundation in 2010 with his wife Nicola and daughter Grace – has been one of the world’s biggest advocates for change.
The Walk Free Foundation’s Global Slavery Index has raised the profile of the insidious problem.
While slavery may conjure up images of a dark chapter in US history, the reality is 45.8 million people are subject to slavery, servitude, forced labour and human trafficking in more than 167 countries.
Whilst instances of slavery in Australia are small, we are not immune.
However, for many Australian businesses the primary concern is their relationship with companies based in other countries lacking suitable protection for workers.
Some of Australia’s biggest corporations have thrown their support behind the establishment of a Modern Slavery Act with Fortescue Metals Group, Woodside, NAB, Woolworths and Wesfarmers among the more than 170 submissions received by the Senate committee last month.
Forrest, FMG’s chairman, has been calling for government action on the issue for years.
In May, Forrest and his wife Nicola donated $75m towards “removing modern slavery from human history” as part of a $400m philanthropic donation by the couple to various causes.
Forrest told Business Pulse he was introduced to the issue of modern slavery in 2012 by his daughter Grace and her experiences working in orphanages in Nepal.
“I knew straight away I wanted to see whether Fortescue was contributing to this global issue,” he says.
“We conducted a thorough audit of our supply chains and discovered that a contractor supplying us, and hundreds of other companies around the world, used forced and bonded labour.
“This changed everything for me and from that moment on, all suppliers to FMG had to legally declare that they did not use any form of modern slavery in their businesses, or if modern slavery was found, that they were taking immediate action to end it.
“If they could not make these assurances, their contract with us was terminated.”
Forrest says while there are voluntary initiatives and various international standards, legislation is needed to change corporate behaviour.
In its submission to the Senate inquiry, the Walk Free Foundation recommended the Australian Modern Slavery Act reflect three priorities: appointing an anti-slavery commissioner, requiring all businesses in Australia to publish a “Modern Slavery Statement reporting on steps it’s taking to ensure it is not occurring in its supply chain”, and the establishment of a Central Repository List for all modern slavery statements to be made freely available.
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